Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Wednesday, March 29, 2017: Maximum Shelf: Where Dead Men Meet

Blackstone Publishing: Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

Blackstone Publishing: Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

Blackstone Publishing: Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

Blackstone Publishing: Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

Where Dead Men Meet

by Mark Mills

Reading Mark Mills's Where Dead Men Meet is like watching a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, one with an expertly drawn everyman caught up in engrossing intrigue and on the run from dangerous spies and nefarious characters. Accompanied, of course, by a beautiful and possibly deadly dame. The opening is brutal and spiritual at the same time. In 1937 England, a nun is beaten to death, but she's the kind of person who "[steeps] herself in Christ's selfless Passion, living His suffering as best she could," so her last thought is that perhaps the violence inflicted upon her is "a test, a kind of penance, and... she would show herself equal to the suffering He had endured."

Cut to Paris, France, where Luke Hamilton works as a junior air intelligence officer at the British Embassy. He receives word of the murder of Sister Agnes, who raised him after he was orphaned as a baby 25 years earlier, until he was adopted. Even more distressing, he receives a note while dining out, stating that an assassin has Luke in his sights; minutes later, the veracity of the note is confirmed. Luckily, someone else in the restaurant is aware of the killer and saves Luke's life, telling him: "You must change your name, change everything. If you don't, they will find you and they will kill you. Nothing can protect you--not your family, not the police, not your government."

When Luke asks, "Why? What have I done?" his savior--himself a hit man--says Luke has done nothing, that it's a case of mistaken identity, but "people have died for less." This begins Luke's trek across Europe, taking him to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia. Along the way he meets Pippi, whom Luke's rescuer assures will be helpful, but things go roughly during their initial meeting. Trust is something Pippi doesn't give easily. Eventually Luke forms an uneasy alliance with her, thinking he might need the woman's particular set of skills to help him find out why someone wants him dead. But Pippi has her own agenda involving salvation and revenge, and becoming entangled in her plans might put Luke in even more danger.

Where Dead Men Meet is an adventurous, cinematic read, which isn't surprising since Mills is a former screenwriter. The visuals he creates are exceptionally vivid, putting readers right in the thick of the action and on location.

It's easy to imagine an actor similar to a young Jimmy Stewart or Joel McCrea playing Luke, an innocent who starts out not knowing why someone thinks he knows something he doesn't know, but becomes more resourceful as he learns how to survive and stay one step ahead of the bad guys. And picture someone like Veronica Lake or Joan Fontaine as Pippi, the mysterious woman who's steelier than she looks. She and Luke enjoy lively banter: "Love doesn't have to be requited to be real," Luke tells her. "Maybe the purest kind of love is the one that stands alone, by itself." When Pippi replies, "You don't believe that," Luke retorts, "And you have obviously never loved a cat." The two are a winning pair, and hopefully Mills will bring them back for future adventures.

The protagonists aren't the only memorable characters; the supporting ones--including the bad guys--leave indelible impressions, too. Borodin, the man who saves Luke's life, is perhaps one of the most sympathetic assassins in recent memory. There's no question Borodin is a lethal weapon, but his relationship with Luke and Pippi is surprisingly moving. Borodin's daughter, Simone, appears in one scene, and yet what she does is nothing short of extraordinary, as Pippi says. The killers gunning for Luke come in different shades of vicious--some are even civil--with motives ranging from a desire to avenge a family member's death to straight-up greed. Mills gives each character a full inner life, showing that even while people commit heinous acts, they could still believe they're doing the right thing.

Though the novel is set 80 years ago, Mills's observations about world events are timely and relevant. One character reminisces about an earlier period in Germany when "the land borders were still porous," but as war looks imminent, there's a "subtle shift in policy, the slow sealing-off of the country," and "a reckoning... with anyone foolish enough to challenge [the establishment]: journalists, authors, artists, and other undesirables." It's not hard to imagine how these passages could describe the current political climate.

But this isn't a political novel. It's smart entertainment, a suspenseful escapade across Europe with a dash of romance and involving characters who insist you come along for the unforgettable ride. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Blackstone Audiobooks, $26.99, hardcover, 9781504779739, May 30, 2017

Blackstone Publishing: Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

Mark Mills: Exorcising Ideas

Mark Mills was a screenwriter before he turned his hand to novels. His first, Amagansett, won the 2004 Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Dagger Award for best novel by a debut author. His second, The Savage Garden, was a Richard & Judy Summer Read selection and number one bestseller. Mills has lived in Italy and France, and currently resides in England. Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Publishing, May 2017) is his seventh novel. 

What attracts you to writing historical thrillers, specifically the 1930s-1950s, when most of your novels are set?

I never set out to write historical thrillers; I sort of fell into it with my first novel, Amagansett. Set in the small town of the same name on the South Fork of Long Island, it's a murder mystery that brings the world of the ancient fishing clans into conflict with the wealthy outsiders who adopted that stretch of the coastline as their summer playground.

It seemed to me that the tension between these two communities, between old and new America, trembled in a tantalizing balance in the years immediately after the Second World War, so I opted to set the story in 1947, not fully appreciating the task I'd set myself! I made several dedicated research trips to the place, and it was a fascinating experience: burrowing away in the local library, interviewing people old enough to recall that time, and walking all over. There were occasions when I felt more like a sociologist than a novelist.

Having come from the world of cinema, of screenwriting, it was an altogether different working method, extremely satisfying (if time consuming), and one I've been hooked on since.

What's the most surprising experience you've ever had on a research trip? The scariest?

My second novel, The Savage Garden, was set in Italy in the 1950s, but it started life as a mystery set on the island of Java in the 1880s. The timing of my research trip to Indonesia couldn't really have been worse. I was woken on my very first morning in the capital of Jakarta by the sound of an explosion that rattled the windows of my hotel room. It turned out to be a car bomb attack on the Australian embassy by the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah. I was strongly advised to remain within the hotel compound for several days because of anti-Western feelings, and a big chunk of my research bit the dust at that point.

But having flown halfway around the world, I was determined to at least set eyes on the town where the bulk of my story takes place. Unfortunately, that part of the island--Sunda--is something of a hotbed of militant Islamic thinking, and although I found the Indonesians I met there to be extremely kind and welcoming, there was an unsettling moment that will stay with me forever.

I had hired a small boat to take me upriver from the old port of Anyer. As we pootled upstream, more and more people began appearing on the bank, tracking us--no women, only men. At a certain point, they became very vocal with the boat owner, gesturing violently, and we duly turned around. I was the cause of their upset, and although I don't suppose I was in any real danger, I'll always remember the way they saw me off their river and back out to sea.

How did that make you feel?

I felt despised on the basis of my appearance alone, which is probably how a lot of people in the world feel for much of the time. It was a genuinely sobering experience that left me feeling washed out (rather than terrified) and humbled.

Have you been to all the locations featured in Where Dead Men Meet?

Yes, I've visited all the major locations. Some of the smaller ones, like the tiny mountain pass over the Alps, were too much of a detour. Annoyingly, I was so behind on the book that I couldn't justify a research trip to Venice! I've visited the city several times, though, and my memories of it are very vivid, as they are for everyone who has gone there and fallen under its spell.

I can vouch for the impressions Venice leaves on visitors! Have you ever gone to research a location, and while there, found a better story to tell than your original idea?

No, that's never happened to me, although my Indonesian experience is an example of having to abandon a story because my research was so badly hampered that I just didn't feel entitled to write the novel.

What is very exciting, though--and this often happens--is traveling to a place with a fixed idea of how the story will unfold, only for the geography of the location to reshape the narrative, and sometimes the characters, too.  

After Savage Garden became a Richard & Judy pick, you felt pressure to follow up with essentially the same book as quickly as possible. This led to your changing publishers.

The accepted wisdom is to promptly turn out an almost identical book following a lucky break, such as the one I got with Richard & Judy. The way I see it, though, if I'm going to give over two years of my life to writing a book, I don't really wish to spend that time toiling away to satisfy someone else's requirements. I'm very much led by ideas. Often there are several bubbling away at the same time, and I just live with them all for a bit, until one of them asserts its authority over the others. At that point, you have no choice in the matter. You have to write it out, almost to exorcise it.

I know this approach doesn't necessarily make sound professional sense, but it allows for satisfying surprises. My last novel before Where Dead Men Meet was Waiting for Doggo, a contemporary comedy about a guy who gets lumbered with a rescue dog when his girlfriend walks out on him. Bad for "branding," but great fun to try my hand at something different. I hope I continue to make choices from the heart, not to order. Needless to say, the moment my career completely tanks, I'll abandon all these lofty principles and write whatever the publishers are looking for!

I hope you write more about Luke and Pippi, the main characters in Where Dead Men Meet. They're great characters.

I purposely seeded the possibility of bringing Luke and Pippi back. This wasn't something I'd considered until I approached the end of the book. I was enjoying their company, and I felt their relationship had a ways to go still. After all, they've known each other for all of a week, if that, by the time they end up back in Paris.

Who are your literary influences?

I often think readers are better placed than the author to ascribe literary influences. That said, I know the authors I respect, admire and return to. There are too many to list, but Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene are right in the middle of the mix. As for contemporary writers, I know I owe a debt to the novels of William Boyd, for their rich tapestry of history, character and strong narrative drive.

Fifty years from now, if you were to write a historical thriller set in this current time period, what/who would it be about and where would it be set?

Given the common themes that seem to have emerged in my books, I imagine I would be drawn to a story about an amateur, an innocent, who finds himself (or herself) momentarily caught up in an extraordinary turn of events.

As for an overarching narrative that crystallizes our times, I think I'd probably reach for the increasing stretch between the haves and the have-nots in societies all around the world. Maybe a story about an individual who learns a terrifying but valuable lesson about the dangers of complacency and unfettered greed. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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